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In 神天聖書 (a classical translation of the Bible to Chinese), the Fifth Book of Moses was translated as:

摩西之第五書名曰吐嘚咡挼咪啞譯言復講法律傳

I guess that 吐嘚咡挼咪啞 is a transliteration of Deuteronomy. But I failed to see the reason that except for 挼, only characters with 口字旁 was used in this transliteration. Is there any reason?

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Characters with "mouth radicals" are often chosen for transliterations. This is especially helpful to show that it is a proper noun rather than anything else, otherwise the reader might try and put meaning into characters that are simply there for their associated sounds.

A similar concept can be seen in Chinese onomatopoeia. For instance "choo-choo" the sound a steam train makes can be written: 呜呜 in Chinese, and again we see the mouth radical to indicate purely sound-based usage. 咩咩 is equivalent to the English "baa baa," the sounds that sheep make. A closer fit to English would be: 喵喵 the sound cats make.

As a note: this is quite an old transliteration practice. You wouldn't see places written this way today and if you look at most countries names they just simply are not translated like this. But, the mouth radical does hint at sound over meaning.

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  • Thank you! Do you have any other examples of this principle? – Zuriel Dec 31 '19 at 3:13
  • It is very helpful and thank you very much!! – Zuriel Dec 31 '19 at 3:20
  • By the way, 咩咩 sounds very different from "baa baa" :-) – Zuriel Dec 31 '19 at 3:20
  • Sheep have a different accent in the East, I guess. Must be the climate. – Mo. Dec 31 '19 at 3:26
  • @Zuriel m and b (and p) are related sounds. – dROOOze Dec 31 '19 at 3:42

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